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January 12, 2013

Preview: UConn @ Notre Dame

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Head coach: Kevin Ollie - 1st year as head coach at Connecticut (11-3). Starred for Connecticut under former head coach Jim Calhoun. Played in NBA from 1997-2010. A member of the Huskies' coaching staff the previous two seasons.

You should know: That the Huskies are being coached by Kevin Ollie after Jim Calhoun led them to 618 victories and three national titles in 26 seasons…Connecticut lost its Big East opener at Marquette, 82-76 in overtime, and then followed up with a 99-78 victory over DePaul. The pre-conference schedule was challenging, including a 69-65 loss to North Carolina State in the Jimmy V Classic and a 66-60 loss at home to Steve Alford's New Mexico squad as the Lobos connected on all 21 of their free-throw attempts. The Huskies also squeaked out victories over Michigan State (66-62), Wake Forest (77-71), Quinnipiac (89-82 in double overtime), Stony Brook (73-62 after trailing by five at halftime), New Hampshire (61-53), Harvard (57-49) and Washington (61-53)…The Notre Dame-Connecticut series has been one of the most hotly-contested since the Irish joined the Big East in 1995, although the Huskies own a 17-10 edge. The Irish have won four of the last five, including victories in Hartford (50-48) last January and in Storrs (70-67) in March of 2011. Notre Dame lost 11 of 14 to the Huskies from 2001-10…Notre Dame will be shooting for its 13th straight victory and 18th in a row at Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame's last loss at home was to Connecticut on Jan. 14 of last season. Notre Dame is 46-1 in its last 47 home games…A victory would give the Irish a 3-0 record in Big East play for the first time in their 18 seasons in the conference.

Top losses: Jeremy Lamb (17.7 ppg., 4.9 rpg.), Andre Drummond (10.0 ppg., 7.6 rpg.), Alex Oriakhi (6.7 ppg., 4.8 rpg.), Roscoe Smith (4.4 ppg., 3.4 rpg.)

Top players: The Huskies are driven by the dynamic one-two backcourt punch of 6-foot-1 junior Shabazz Napier and 6-foot-0 sophomore Ryan Boatright, who combine for 33.6 points per game, or 45.9 percent of the Connecticut scoring output (73.1 per game). They also have a combined 119-to-57 assist-to-turnover ratio. The ball is in their hands a majority of the time, and at crunch time, they're usually the ones putting the basketball in the hole.

Shabazz Napier

Napier (17.4 ppg.) tied a career high with 29 points in a Jan. 1 loss at Marquette and had 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a Jan. 8 win over DePaul. He scored 19 points with seven rebounds and six assists in a late-December victory over Fordham. Of his 29 points in a double overtime victory over Quinnipiac in November, 23 came in the final 13:24. All 16 of his points against Wake Forest were scored over the final 10 minutes. He scored 25 points in the season-opening victory over Michigan State. Napier leads the Huskies in three-pointers (28) and three-point shooting percentage (.389), and is shooting .831 (69-of-83) from the free-throw line. Napier actually paces the Huskies in rebounds at 4.5 per game.

If it's not Napier, it's Boatright, who is averaging 16.2 points per game. He scored 22 points in the recent victory over DePaul and had 26 points and nine assists in the victory over Fordham. Boatright is second behind Napier in three-pointers with 19 while shooting .352 from beyond the arc.

DeAndre Daniels, a 6-foot-8, 195-pound sophomore, has emerged as a solid contributor for the Huskies after averaging just 12 minutes and 3.0 points per game a year ago. Daniels is averaging 11.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He's second on the squad in blocked shots with 18. He scored 26 points with eight rebounds in the recent victory over DePaul and had 23 points despite battling back spasms against Harvard.

Connecticut's fourth double-digit scorer is 6-foot-5, 195-pound freshman Omar Calhoun, who is tallying at a 10.6 clip. He's third on the team in three-pointers with 17, but is shooting just .309 from beyond the arc. He tossed in 14 points in a late-December victory over Washington and had a career-high 22 points a week-and-a-half earlier against Maryland-Eastern Shore. He also scored 16 points against New Hampshire.

Tyler Olander, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound junior, has taken on a greater role up front with the departure of Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi. But Olander is averaging just 4.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in 20 minutes of action. He had nine points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots against Vermont early in the season.

R.J. Evans, a 6-foot-3, 210-pounder, is the only senior among the top 10 in the rotation. He's averaging 17.4 minutes and 4.5 points per game. Niels Giffey, a 6-foot-7, 205-pound junior, plays 19.5 minutes per game and scores at a 3.9 clip. He had 15 points in a late-November victory over Stony Brook.

Enosch Wolf is a 7-foot-1, 240-pound junior who is averaging 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in less than 14 minutes per game. He had 12 points and nine rebounds in an early-December loss to North Carolina State, and scored 10 points versus Wake Forest.

Brey on UConn differences with Ollie: "It really is amazing to look at their stats. Their blocked shots are usually off the charts. But these two guards make those frontline players really good players, just like our guards can make our other guys better players. So how do we control those two guys? There's got to be a team awareness. Of course we had a similar preparation on Monday against (Cincinnati's guards), who kind of make the big guys go. So hopefully we can carry over from Monday's prep to Saturday.

"They play a little more zone than before because they've got to keep those guards on the floor almost the whole game. They're moving and cutting more. A little bit more of a motion look instead of ball screens and sets under Jim Calhoun. At the end of the day, it reverts back to somebody ball screening for Napier or Boatright, and what makes it difficult is they can shoot it to. You've got to be on 'em, but they can drive by you and make plays. So our team defense against the ball screen will really be a key for us."

Brey on Atkins-Grant vs. Napier-Boatright: "It's a great match-up. These two guys are really good, and I think our guys really love those challenges because they had that challenge on Monday (at Cincinnati). They know when really good guards are coming at them, and they've risen to that challenge. At Louisville last year, even as young guys, right after we lost to Cincinnati, they accepted that challenge on the road."

Brey on Ollie: "I'm really thrilled that they decided to invest in him. You can tell the kids on the team love him, yet he walks that line of being able to be close to them, but yet being their coach and getting on their back side extremely well. I think it's a great decision by Connecticut to enlist Kevin long-term. I think it's great continuity for Connecticut to have him running the show."

Prister's take: These aren't Jim Calhoun's Huskies anymore. The inside presence that made life so difficult for opposing rebounders and penetrators is gone, and it's a guard-dominated world, led by Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Of course, Calhoun's best players tended to be his guards, although neither scores it like Kemba Walker did. Yet both will let it fly and both are capable of taking over the game.

This is the kind of challenge Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant relish. The Irish backcourt doesn't score like Napier and Boatright - combining for 23.9 points per game - but they dish it (a combined 12.5 assists per game) and will defend to the final buzzer.

All things being equal, the two backcourts should negate each other and the Irish should have the edge up front. Jack Cooley (15.2 ppg., 11.2 rpg.) is a consistent presence. His 71 offensive rebounds present a challenge for which the Huskies are not nearly as prepared as they have been in the past.

Scott Martin has been on fire from beyond the arc (10-of-14 the first two games of Big East play) and has now raised his shooting percentage from three-point range to .508 (31-of-61). Pat Connaughton has raised and rounded out his game during his sophomore season.

Connecticut was out-rebounded in 10 of its first 11 games, and was hammered on the boards at Marquette (39-29) last week. They've had several scares along the way in addition to three losses, although their schedule has been challenging and has prepared them for Big East play. They don't shoot it that well from beyond the arc (.326), although with Napier and Boatright taking most of the shots, they've been good at crunch time.

The backcourt match-up of Napier-Boatright vs. Atkins-Grant will be one of the better shows in the country today. But ultimately, it's the Irish experienced front line and the magic that is Notre Dame's ball movement, which over the course of 40 minutes takes its toll on the opposition.

The Irish have a remarkable 292-to-159 assist-to-turnover ratio, and their chemistry shows itself after a competitive first half. For the first time since joining the Big East in 1995, the Irish open conference play 3-0.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 9
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 79, Connecticut 67
Prister's record: 13-2 straight up; 7-5 vs. points


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